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Maintaining milk quality in our paddocks: How we keep a low SCC on grass

Brittany Olson for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 July 2019
cow in pasture

One Saturday night, my husband and I got a text from our milk co-op with milk quality data from the previous day’s load, and panic began to set in. Our somatic cell count (SCC) was far over our comfort threshold of 100,000, and in a small herd like ours, the blame – more often than not – lays squarely on the withers of just one cow.

We had just put in a fresh cow after she was deemed to be clear of antibiotic residue; aside from the oppressive humidity we’d been experiencing that week and feeding round bales on a sacrifice lot to give our pastures an extra week of rest, that was the only change we could think of. Nodding, we looked at each other and knew exactly what our mode of action was going to be.

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Keeping udders clean

In normal times, we often go for several weeks without treating any cows for mastitis, whether it be clinical or subclinical. People like to equate grazing with dirty and mud-caked udders and teats, but with good cow sense, that can definitely be mitigated. By using rotational grazing on our farm, the cows get a fresh strip of pasture every 12 hours, so they usually have somewhere clean and dry to lie down and rest. When they come into the barn for milking, we scrape each stall and use a tail holder to keep their tails out of the gutter, so they don’t splash heaven knows what all over themselves, their neighbors, the barn and us.

We’ve also been able to save money on milking preparation products by using hot, soapy water to wash each teat before forestripping and attaching the milkers. After washing each teat with a disposable paper towel, we take three to four strips from each quarter and sometimes more if a particular quarter has a history of being a problem. We’ve experimented with different pre-dips in the past just to try them and always ended up coming back to washing. We hypothesize that the two practices are a lot like comparing the use of hand sanitizer to good old handwashing, and the cows get a great deal more teat stimulation for milk letdown when we wash them as opposed to pre-dipping.

Chasing mastitis

Forestripping is our best tool in our arsenal against mastitis because of its diagnostic abilities. However, it doesn’t indicate subclinical mastitis. In addition to keeping a very close eye on day-to-day milk quality data from our co-op, we also test our milk once a month and scour through DHIA data to see which cows may possibly need further attention. If a cow in the herd has a SCC higher than 500,000, we use the California Mastitis Test (our second best diagnostic tool) to identify the problem quarter and then isolate it by using a quarter milker. In cases like this, the mastitis often clears up on its own in a week or two, but if it doesn’t, then we will treat the cow. If treatment does not work, we send in a milk sample from that quarter to either our milk tester or the University of Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab we have fairly close by. We have saved money by not only using blanket treatments for every case of mastitis, but also by simply paying closer attention to udder health.

Back to the story I was beginning to tell in the introduction of this article: We decided to go through and CMT every single cow in the herd that night. While it tacked on an extra half hour to milking that night, it confirmed our suspicions that the fresh cow in question was, indeed, the cow that caused the major spike in our bulk tank SCC. She had been a problem cow in the past, especially after contracting an incurable form of mastitis last lactation, and in all reality should have been culled long before this point. Even though she was milking exceptionally well, it was her time to go even though culling decisions are never taken lightly, and our commitment to quality won out over any attachment to the cow.  end mark

Brittany Olson is a dairy farmer and freelance writer from Chetek, Wisconsin. She and her husband, Sam, milk 40 registered Holsteins and Jerseys on their 116-year-old farm.

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PHOTO: Brittany Olson says many equate grazing cows with dirty and mud-caked udders and teats, but with proper cow and pasture management, those concerns can be mitigated. Photo by Brittany Olson.

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